35 Hours in Milwaukee

Last week, I took a look at the extended forecast and thought, "Oh hell no." So I plotted my escape from New Jersey. I revisited abandoned plans to see Dick Contino, master of the accordion and prolific shaker of the bellows, for the first time, at Milwaukee's Festa Italiana. I like Milwaukee. It's a short trip. I can get a flight for a little over $200. OK, I'm gone. That's pretty much how my trip planning went.

So I bought a ticket for Thursday morning, with a return flight Friday night. And this is what happened.

I arrive at Mitchell Airport a little before 8 a.m. (after a 6:55 a.m. flight from LaGuardia...first NYC taxi ride in more than a decade). I soon fall further in love with Milwaukee when I find a pretty great used bookstore in the airport. But there is precious little time to browse, because I need to make the 9:30 Breakfast Bingo special at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino.

I make Breakfast Bingo with several minutes to spare, plenty of time to buy a new bingo marker and get a good spot in the non-smoking section. I don't win and don't really even get close, but buying another Elvis bingo marker (yes, I said "another") is a win in itself. Plus, I snag a $5 hat from the gift shop mainly because it has two mini searchlights on the visor. This may be the greatest hat ever.

After bingo, I walk to my hotel (probably should've noted that it was at the top of a hill before deciding to do that), check in, dump some things out of my bag, and take my 5 records and one book to the Festa Italiana with the hopes of getting accordion god Dick Contino to sign them after one of his two performances that day.

But first, I must meet up with my buddy the Bronze Fonz for another photo.


Upon arriving at the Festa (the second the box office opens), I quickly scope out the stage where Mr. Contino is playing. I then get some eggplant sticks and consume them in the broiling sun. Soon, a slightly mentally challenged man expresses shock that I have never seen Dick Contino before, because he plays the Festa every year (for the last32 it turns out). I explain my journey. The line distinguishing "normal" from "slightly mentally challenged" grows a bit blurrier.

The 81-year-old Mr. Contino takes the stage just after 3, noticeably limping. But he doesn't let whatever's ailing him get in the way of his deft keyboard work and incomparable bellow shaking. I smile and tap my foot giddily for an hour, stopping only to move up a few rows (very easy to do, since there were maybe 10 people in the rows and a crowd of about 20 in the shade) to get better pictures.

Much to my delight, Mr. Contino comes out to sign stuff, and I soon become the center of attention for the senior citizens that have gathered around the merch table. I tell Mr. Contino that I have come all the way from New Jersey just to meet him, and he seems appreciative. It is hard to tell, though, because, truth be told, the Dick Contino fanbase does not contain the most patient people in the world. In the ten seconds it takes for me to get the albums out of their protective sleeves, I am ostensibly sent to the back of the line as everybody else angles in for their moment with Mr. Contino. Pictures are taken, memories are relived, and then eventually I get my records and book signed. I then try to pass off my camera to someone to take a picture, but he just starts snapping away and I have no idea when the picture is actually being taken. So those didn't come out so well. But the second time's the charm, as Mr. Contino's handler (who sort of looks--and sounds--like a compacted Tony Clifton) nails it in one take.

With the focus of the trip now fulfilled, I can relax. I have conversations with two different women about Mr. Contino. The first is the wife of the man (Mario) I first gave my camera to, and she tells me her husband worships Mr. Contino and is an accordion player himself (they've come down from Chicago for the day). He also grows vegetables, and Mr. Contino is soon given a sample of the peppers and basil they have brought. And then I'm given a pickle. Quite good. We soon depart, and I tell her I'll likely see them at the 7:30 show.

The second woman is, quite honestly, adorable, and pretty much a midwestern version of my mom. As I was sitting on a bench by Lake Michigan and putting my records back in their sleeves, she came up to me and asked if she could see the records. As she picked up each one, she remarked whether she had it or not, and then started talking about her many years of Contino fandom. She remembered going to see him when she was young and then when she was a bit older, and finally now as she, her husband, and Mr. Contino live the twilight years. When I tell her this is my first time seeing him, her initial reaction was sadness, because the guy I had just seen on the stage is nothing like the black-haired, muscled guy she'd been seeing for half her life. But I told her that I thought he was great, and she conceded that, yeah, he's still good, but it's just not the same, and he seems to be in so much pain. We talk about that for awhile, and how we both came because, well, who knows if he'll be back next year.

A few times in the conversation she mentioned that she never would've thought she'd actually get to be friends with Dick Contino. It's very sweet, as she talks about how she used to come see him at the Festa and then she and the rest of the Fan Club would all head back to the hotel with Mr. Contino after the day's sets were done, eventually all ending up at Denny's early in the morning. It's so sweet that I wish I had recorded it so I could hold on to it forever. But I'll have to make do with what my brain remembers.

As we wrapped up our conversation, she pondered whether she and her husband were going to stick around for the 7:30 show, because it's so hot and her husband's pushing her around in a wheelchair and that show's still three hours away. I told her to just find a good shady spot for a few hours and see if she can make it.

Of course, as I sat down for the 7:30 show, I turn to my right and hear, "Hey, Jersey!" There she was, dead center in the late-day sun (her husband sat in the wheelchair at the end of the row). Was there ever really a doubt?

I pondered leaving myself, but a few of the other acts held my attention enough that I was able to pass the time pretty well. There was also the Lego Leaning Tower of Pisa and Lego Miller Park to ogle.

Mario and his wife were back up front for the 7:30 show, and Mario was, as he did during the first show, taking it upon himself to make sure the house sound was OK for Mr. Contino (later on, he told me he slipped the sound guy $20 to give Mr. Contino a little more power). With a much larger crowd assembled for the evening show, Mr. Contino is even more on top of his game and even drops the zipper on his shirt a little lower to give the ladies something to take home with them.

I figured I oughta try to capture a Contino bellow shake on video, so I did. Behold the Contino shake during "Beer Barrel Polka." (The video's rough, so if you want to go right to the bellow shaking, hit the :20 mark.)

Mr. Contino definitely seemed a little looser and more at ease during the evening show, and it was probably the best of the three sets I saw (all pretty much the same setlist-wise, but, hey, you go with what works). After the closing number, the highly emotional "This Is My Life" (see Shirley Bassey's version here). I look over to Mario's wife, and she is openly crying. Seeing as I'd been up since 3 a.m. Central time, I'm a little surprised I didn't cry myself.

I finally spoke to Mario after the show (he seemed a little wary of me for some reason, perhaps because of my obnoxious Hawaiian shirt), and he told me about a show he was putting together in the fall in Chicago with him, Mr. Contino, and an Elvis impersonator (looks like I'm going to Chicago in the fall). Also, after a pointed declaration that bellow shaking was harder than it looks and that Mr. Contino pulls it off because he's Italian and has heart (at one point, I thought Mario might poke me in the chest), thoughts turned to vegetables again, and I was given more pickles, some basil, and a zucchini.

I had thoughts of taking my produce and going bowling after the festival, but I decided that going back to the hotel was the smarter decision. And, for once, I went with the smarter decision, though I did once again walk up the hill instead of taking a cab or bus.

It rained overnight and into the morning, so on Friday, I partook of the continental breakfast and then waited out the rain while I watched weather reports, "The Price Is Right," and "The View." The rain let up just around checkout time, so I took the free hotel shuttle down to Mader's, where I had some sauerbraten and chatted with Gary the bartender, a self-proclaimed survivalist who admitted (adding "and maybe I should be seeing a doctor about this") that when he's driving he looks at old buildings and envisions zombies coming out of them. He will, naturally, shoot the zombies. I'm not sure if it's because I was overtired or because I love the food at Mader's so much, but I think this was one of the more enjoyable conversations I've had in the last few years.

Before I left, I checked out the Mader's Wall of Fame, featuring some of the celebrities who have dined at the restaurant. President Ford's note of thanks was prominently displayed, but aside from T&R Hall of Famer John Candy's signed 8X10, I was most impressed with wrestler (and master of the Iron Claw) Baron Von Raschke's place on the wall.

Excellent pun, sir.

And I should also make note of Oliver Hardy's love of the pork shank.

After lunch, I walked down to the Milwaukee Public Market, which I had scoped out the day before. I left with a bottle of locally made black cherry cream soda (I'd had locally made root beer the day before, and it was better), chocolate-covered cranberries, some cookies, and a slice of German chocolate cake for the road (the latter two were from C. Adam's Bakery, which I highly recommend).

I then saw a sign for a t-shirt store in the Historic Third Ward, and since I had some time to kill before it was Contino Time again, I figured I'd check it out. The guy in charge, Fred, was awfully nice, and the shirts were cool, too. I opted for one with the old Milwaukee County Stadium beer slide on it, and after I told Fred why I was in Milwaukee, I was asked to pose for a photo. Support your local t-shirt makers, wherever you are.

The third Contino set was solid, too (I took several videos, but they're so shaky that there's either something wrong with my camera or I have Parkinson's), and afterward I braved the merch crowd to buy my second CD of the weekend, which I asked Mr. Contino to sign to me. He recognized me from the day before and thanked me again for bringing the records and coming so far to see him. He really did seem genuinely moved by my effort. So maybe I made the days a little brighter for him.

He definitely made them brighter for me. And kept me away from the crushing NYC heat for a few days (though the pilot said the temperature when we landed at LaGuardia at 10 p.m. was 93 degrees). So, thanks Mr. Contino. And the elderly Contino-heads of the Milwaukee/Chicago area. And Fred. And Gary the zombie-hunting bartender. And all of Milwaukee. I have yet to find a bad thing about the city.

See you soon. Please continue rolling out the barrel in my absence.


Book Revku, Vol. 42

A balanced portrait
Of a musical legend
Who loved the ladies

Can't You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass by Richard D. Smith


Book Revku, Vol. 41

A truly odd tale
Whose moral appears to be
Don't challenge yourself

Magic Time by W.P. Kinsella (223 pp.)


The 50-A-Day Project: Books 31-40 (Halftime)

This batch started off rough, with a William Kennedy book that quickly relieved my guilt about having never read a William Kennedy book and a book about Hank Williams, Bocephus, and Hank III that I'd been looking forward to reading but soon realized would contain very little I didn't know (the book also seemed to have the fewest interviews of any biography I've ever read...I assume the author felt that lots of quotes from interviews with Hank III would be enough). So, that, coupled with some music festival trips and the general sluggishness summer brings to me (I know, I'm weird), made me worry that I wasn't going to make it to the halfway mark. But a couple of good books followed, and I was soon back on track.

After finishing the 40th book, I had tallied 12,096 pages in 185 days, for an average of 65.4 pages a day. Not too bad, and better than I'd thought I'd be at the beginning of the journey. Early on in the journey, I had thoughts about going for 100 books by year's end, but that seems unlikely now (unless I start reading really short books). Still, a final total of 75-80 books and 25,000 pages would be swell.


Best Fiction Book: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Best Nonfiction Book: All Hopped Up and Ready to Go: Music from the Streets of New York 1927-77 by Tony Fletcher
Toughest Read: The Ink Truck by William Kennedy
Easiest Read: Family Tradition: Three Generations of Hank Williams by Susan Masino
Number of Books on Loan: 0
Number of Books Given as Gifts: 1 (All Hopped Up and Ready to Go: Music from the Streets of New York 1927-77 by Tony Fletcher). Thanks, Josh!
Number of Books Signed by the Author: 2 (All Hopped Up and Ready to Go: Music from the Streets of New York 1927-77 by Tony Fletcher, and I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle )
Book That Was Sitting on the Shelf the Longest
: Sixties Going on Seventies by Nora Sayre. I'm reasonably confident I bought it at the Friends of the Library Book Sale in Ithaca, NY, probably in 1994 or 1995. Ms. Sayre visited my college during my freshman year, and my Intro to Journalism professor (Jill Dianne Swenson, a fine professor who frightened 75% of our class right out of the journalism major) set me up to interview her for a class assignment during her visit. I did some quick and dirty research in the Ithaca College library, which, in those days before the Internet took over, meant a lot of microfiche reading. I did as well as I could, I suppose, but I can't imagine it was a very good interview on my part (though I think I got a good grade on it). I do recall that Ms. Sayre was quite kind and didn't openly berate me for my greenness, which was nice of her. And so, over 15 years later (and nearly ten years after Ms. Sayre left this world), I finally got around to reading one of her books. It turns out she was quite a good writer, and a witness to a lot of interesting moments in the 1960s. Sure would have been nice to ask her more about that.

Best Paragraph:
"Americans have never known what war really is. No matter how much they saw it on television or pictures or magazines. Because there is one feature they never appreciated: the smell. When you go through a village and you suddenly get this horrible smell. Everybody's walking around with masks on their faces 'cause it's just intolerable. You look out and see those bloated bodies. You no longer see humans, because they've been pretty well cleaned up by now. You see bloated horses and cows and the smell of death. It's not discriminating, they all smell the same. Maybe if Americans had known even that, they'd be more concerned about peace."
Dr. Alex Shulman, from "The Good War": An Oral History of World War Two by Studs Terkel

Book Revku, Vol. 40

Mostly engaging
Frequently enlightening
Generally good

Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001: The Year's Finest Writing on Rock, Pop, Jazz, Country and More edited by Nick Hornby (319 pp.)


Why My City Is Better Than Your City

Because on Sunday, a polka band (Joe Stanky and the Cadets) played five sets at a street fair a block from my apartment. Granted, the sets were getting shorter as the day went on (The last two may have been about 20 minutes each), but they still played from 2:30 to 9 p.m. with only a few short breaks.

Because that street fair featured food (stuffed cabbage, kielbasa, pierogies, and easily the best potato pancakes I have ever eaten--or likely will ever eat--in my life) made by the Polish ladies of St. Anthony's that was ridiculously good.

Because during the fourth set, when the sun finally started to go down, an old Polish woman practically took it upon herself to start the dance party by grabbing anyone who made eye contact with her (and some who didn't).

Because once that woman achieved success, there was the greatest multicultural polka throwdown I've ever seen, with Polish, Indian, Hispanic, white, and black people all getting on down.

And because during the third set, before the dance party broke out, one guy started his own private dance party, waltzing by himself, mamboing by himself, and, best of all, occasionally closing with Elvis karate moves. Unfortunately, he didn't bust out the Elvis moves when I filmed this (you can see him in the middle of one in the photo above, though), but he still busted some sweet moves (he even throws in some fist pumping). Please enjoy this look into my future. I hope.

I defy you to find a better dancer in your city. Send me the videos.

God bless Jersey City.


Book Revku, Vol. 39

Though the land was flat
Life on the plains was rocky
For Swedes and the rest

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (309 pp.)


Book Revku, Vol. 38

I interviewed her
Without doing much research
Ready now; she's dead

Sixties Going on Seventies by Nora Sayre (410 pp.)


Book Revku, Vol. 37

The old parks are gone
But a few are still standing
Like this hidden gem

Rickwood Field: A Century in America's Oldest Ballpark by Allen Barra (335 pp.)


Book Revku, Vol. 36

The horrors of war
Told by those who lived through it
As Studs just listens

"The Good War": An Oral History of World War Two by Studs Terkel (591 pp.)


What I Liked About June

*Mountain Jam, Hunter, NY
*Amy LaVere, Googie's Lounge/Amanda Shires, Living Room, NYC
*Return to Sweet Sue's, Phoenicia, NY
*The Bangles (and the Ellises), Celebrate Fairfax, Fairfax, VA

*Return to Vince-Anna's, Greenville, NY
*Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears/Those Darlins, Madison Square Park, NYC
*Mavis Staples and the Levon Helm Band, Levon Helm Studios, Woodstock, NY
*Seeing Garth Hudson at Woodstock Meats

*The potatoes at Market Lunch, Washington, DC
*The New NRBQ, Maxwell's, Hoboken, NJ
*Eddie Floyd, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Lester Snell, and Anton Fig, Highline Ballroom, NYC
*The willingness of people with cars to drive me places